More on the Suspension of Relief Society

February 25, 2016

A reader suggested yesterday that in my previous post, Remarkable Transparency, I was overly reliant on a single source for my assertion that the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, some 3 months before Joseph Smith was killed. I responded in the comments, but I figured I had enough to post it on its own. So, here goes. I’ll put the reader’s comments in italics.

I think you are overstating the issue of the closing of the RS slightly with your dependence on Mormon Enigma above other sources. Newell and Avery’s biography and history is still unequalled, to be sure, but on this issue they provide as many sources as they can but have to fill in the rest of the story through context.

I used Newell and Avery because it’s well-known and easily accessible, but I could have cited other historians who have reached the same conclusions they did.

For example, here’s Maureen Ursenbach Beecher’s take on it:

The third season began auspiciously in the spring of 1844 with Emma Smith again taking the lead. Knowing the limits of space, she conducted the same meeting four times, at ten o’clock and one o’clock on March 9 and 16. There she delivered a double-talk indictment of plural marriage, a coded but unmistakable opposition to the practice which her husband was ever more widely promulgating. After those four sessions, as John Taylor later explained, “the meetings were discontinued” because “Emma Smith the Pres[ident] taught the sisters that the principle of plural marriage … was not of God.” Eliza R. Snow left the situation ambiguous by acknowledging to a Relief Society in 1868 that “Emma Smith … the Presidentess … gave it [Relief Society] up so as not to lead the society in Erro[r].” (The “Leading Sisters”: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-century Mormon Society, in New Mormon History, ed. Michael Quinn, p. 160.)

And this is from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which I worked on at the Church Office Building, so I know it was vetted and approved by the church: “Beset with differences between its president and Church leaders-differences related to the introduction of plural marriage-the society ceased to function formally after the meetings of March 1844.”

The reader is correct that there’s not a lot to go on, but suffice it to say that I’m not alone in my reading of the events. No one disputes that the meetings in March 1844 involved Emma’s scathing denunciation of polygamy or that the meetings abruptly ceased after that.

There are no original sources contemporary to March-June detailing anything of why another meeting never occurred. We have statements made long after the fact by leaders in Salt Lake City, but as far as I know nothing contemporary. To me, it seems that who you think made the final decision to not have another meeting shows more about how you view the politics of 1844 Nauvoo than it does about how the actual decision went down.

Indeed, there are no contemporary sources explaining why the meetings stopped.

At that time, the Relief Society usually met during warmer weather months, so the first “season” was from March to September 1842. The 1843 season didn’t begin until June 1843, and most sources suggest the delay was caused by Emma’s health problems through the winter and spring of that year. That the 1844 season began with 4 meetings on the 9th and 16th of March suggests that Emma was planning a full season of Relief Society. But the meetings stopped abruptly after that first week, after Emma had denounced polygamy and announced plans to investigate and root out all such immoral practices in Nauvoo. Coincidence? It’s certainly possible, but Eliza Snow’s statement suggests that Emma “gave it up” over a disagreement in church teachings, and John Taylor’s statement tells us the disagreement was over polygamy. In the absence of contemporary statements, we are free to believe that there was no connection between Emma’s attacks on polygamy and the cessation of the society, but I think that stretches credulity.

There’s three options:

1) Joseph shut it down as a result of Emma’s use of the organization to fight against the growing practice of polygamy. Occurring before the assassination in June, this narrative plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo. Also, it doesn’t require, as the other two routes do, for no further meetings to occur merely because of lack of access to space for such meetings.

For the other two, these options usually assume that, following Emma’s statement that the RS would meet again when a large enough venue was found, the reason for no meetings between March and June is because of the logistics of finding a meeting place for the growing organization. Perhaps this difficulty was made worse through non-overt influence of male Church authorities.

Here is Emma’s statement about finding a larger venue, as my reader mentions:

Prest. E. S. closed her  remarks by say[i]ng she should like to have all  the Society present to geather— she said it was her  intention to present the Officers of the Society for  fellowship— when a place can be obtaind that all  can be present— [blank] Meeting ajou [adjourned] until a suitable place can be obtaind—

My reading of this is that Emma wanted to have all members present so the officers of the Relief Society could be presented (I assume for some kind of sustaining vote). It’s entirely possible that lack of meeting space contributed to the cessation of meetings, but this statement clearly indicates that Emma intended to continue holding Relief Society meetings.

Previously,  the problem of lack of space had been more or less resolved. From the minutes of the Relief Society for 7 July 1843:

“In consequence of having no room sufficiently commodious for the whole Society, it was recommended by the President that the Society be divided for the purpose of meeting, according to the 4 City Wards, and meet by rotation, one Ward at a time, that all might have equal privileges: Accordingly notice was given at the Grove on sunday the 2d of July that the members residing in the first City Ward, would convene at the room occupied as a Masonic Hall, on the friday following, at 2. o,clock.”

My guess is that Emma felt that holding multiple meetings was unworkable going forward, but there is no record of her attempting to find a new venue or hold more meetings after March 16, 1844. This suggests to me that she wasn’t looking to resume the meetings after that.

But I would like to address the idea that, somehow, I’m advocating a narrative that “plays well into Joseph’s use and abuse of his power in Nauvoo.” I really don’t know what I am meant to understand from this, as I haven’t said anything about use and abuse of power; rather, I think the reason the church has adopted the “part of the move West” narrative is that the disagreement (to put it mildly) between Joseph and Emma over polygamy doesn’t fit in well with current church representations of their marriage as one of love and single purpose. To quote the church’s own web site, “Joseph and Emma Smith centered their marriage and family in the gospel of Jesus Christ—an example to all.”

2) Brigham shut it down during his power plays after the assassination. Just as Brigham took over access to and assumed spiritual authority for the unfinished Temple and its rituals, so too did Brigham attempt to put down anything threatening to his authority. Knowing of Joseph’s frustrations with the Relief Society he forbade those who followed him from meeting again. We know that he _did_ forbid the Society from arising again for decades through explicit orders to not let the women assemble together until he reformed it in a fashion firmly under his control.

I have no doubt that Brigham opposed the resumption of the Relief Society, but again, my issue is that it had already ceased operating before Brigham was in a position to “shut it down.”

3) Emma shut it down. To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.

Again, the organization had already stopped functioning before her husband’s death.

All three options are unfounded and made without any direct evidence. If you ask me, I’d actually choose the third option, if only because we don’t see Relief Societies in the Reorganized traditions. Brigham’s animosity towards Emma and her use of the RS explains how the RS disappeared among the Brighamites until it was radically reinvented by him decades later. The lack of the RS among the Reorganized tradition seems to me to be very much the decision of an Emma Smith Bidamon who wanted to put all of Nauvoo behind her. It seems like she made a choice herself not to re-institute it or call for it to be reinstated, and to me that decision could easily be pushed back to 1844 after she lost her husband.

Or it could be pushed back to March 1844 when her husband shut it down. I don’t see any reason to reject the consensus of most historians, but I can respect your interpretation.

I don’t see anything wrong with how the new book approaches the timeline, apart from their attempts to paint the loss of the Relief Society under Young’s direction as somehow relating to preparations for “crossing the plains”. That is bullshit, pure and simple. Young was afraid of the power Emma had held, hated Emma herself and anything associated with her, and would never be placed in the same position as Joseph of allowing dissent.

Well, yes, that was my point.

In the end, however, my disagreement with the timeline given in the Deseret News is that it doesn’t line up with the cessation of the meetings. Even Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the authors of the new book, accepts elsewhere that the Relief Society ceased as an organization in March 1844: “The Nauvoo society held its last recorded meeting on March 16, 1844, apparently unable to maintain unity of purpose during the factious events preceding the June 1844 martyrdom of Joseph Smith” (Derr, Jill Mulvay and Janath R. Cannon, “Relief Society,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992).

My reader states, “To have it be Emma’s decision implies that she stopped the organization after her husband was killed due to stress and/or grief.” Again, that just doesn’t line up with the actual dates. Derr has it “preceding” Joseph’s death, but my reader has it “after.” I guess it’s my choice to accept the scholarly consensus here; apparently most historians agree with my view of Nauvoo politics in 1844.

In short, I used Mormon Enigma, but I could have chosen any number of sources that agree with with Newell and Avery, which I have noted here.

Remarkable Transparency

February 24, 2016

Today I woke up thinking how good I feel after having lost some weight and working out regularly, so Mormonism wasn’t on my mind at all. On the way to work, I heard a report from NPR about the prosecution of members of Warren Jeffs’s polygamous clan for food stamp fraud. What I found interesting was that the news announcer specifically read out the Jeffs group’s name, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then went on to explain that this group was not related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (she read out the full name here, as well), which she said was more commonly known as “the Mormon church.” I was briefly amused at the effort NPR was making to ensure listeners would not conflate the LDS church with its crazy stepchild, the FLDS church.

Then I got on with my day, until a friend pointed me to an article in the Deseret News (for those who may not know, the Deseret News is owned and operated by the LDS church and is usually a reliable indicator of the church’s public positions). The article in question, LDS Church signals ‘remarkable’ transparency with new book on ‘First Fifty Years of Relief Society,’ announces the publication of a new book about the origins of the church’s Relief Society, which is its organization for adult women (that’s giving it short shrift, but I would imagine most of my readers know what Relief Society is).

According to the article, the new book’s openness with complicated history is

refreshing to Melissa Inouye, a Latter-day Saint who is a lecturer at the University of Auckland and an associate editor of the Mormon Studies Review.

“In the first place, it shows that the LDS Church is willing to own its women’s history,” Inouye said. “This history as presented by the documents in the book is rich, complicated, inspirational and often troubling. To bring these documents out via the most mainstream channel of church historical discourse demonstrates Mormonism’s growing maturity as a religious movement. Every religion has a human history. We are becoming more comfortable with ours.”

It’s important to portray that history of humanity because of what it teaches us, said Jill Mulvay Derr, one of the book’s co-authors and a retired senior historian in the Church History Department.

“In this book we’re able to discuss the way that plural marriage was confidential at that moment [in] time and some of the confusion caused by that confidentiality. … The issues are very complex, and I think in this volume we’re able to address them, maybe not to everyone’s satisfaction, but at least in ways that are transparent and that show you the humanity of these people and the way they understood things differently.”

That has changed the way Derr, also a Mormon, sees her own faith.

“We just see the rich nuances here of human beings interacting, and I think for me that’s been the most instructive things in terms of my expectation for what my church experience will be. I see it will be full of human relationships and ups and downs and people who occasionally offend and ways to reconcile and to move on. That is our history.”

Before I read the article, I was curious as to how the book would treat the suspension of Relief Society in 1844, a subject I have written about before. Fortunately, the article answered my question:

One of the lesser known stories, published before but in stark contrast in the new book, is the schism that developed between Emma Smith, Joseph Smith’s widow, and Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the church’s leader after Smith was shot to death in June 1844.

Emma was known as an “Elect Lady” and the first president of the Relief Society. As she sought to look after her family’s welfare and supported others who opposed the Quorum of the Twelve and wanted to assume church leadership, President Young worked to stabilize the church.

The book’s four co-editors wrote that, “President Young believed that Emma Smith’s efforts to thwart the practice of plural marriage” — including the use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections — “contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.”

“What are relief societies for?” President Young said in March 1845, nine months after Joseph and Hyrum were killed. “To relieve us of our best men. They relieved us of Joseph and Hyrum.”

“Brigham feels under siege,” Grow said. “He’s grieving. Emma Smith is also grieving, and they said hard things about each other in that grief. Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West. As part of that they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

Let me see if I can unpack this a little. According to the authors, the timeline goes something like this:

  1. Joseph Smith is killed in June 1844.
  2. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve apostles, becomes “the church’s leader.”
  3. Brigham believes that Emma’s public opposition to plural marriage–and “use of Relief Society meetings as a forum for her objections ‘contributed to the furor against Joseph and Hyrum Smith and helped lead to their deaths.'”
  4. The widowed Emma works hard to “look after her family’s welfare” and does not support the leadership of Brigham Young and the Twelve.
  5. By March 1845 Brigham already has negative feelings about the Relief Society organization.
  6. “Brigham and other church leaders decide that safety for the church will necessitate a move somewhere in the West.”
  7. “As part of [preparations for the move West] they make a number of changes in church activities, including suspending the Relief Society. They suspend missionary work for a time. We have to see it in that context, that other things are being suspended, closed in at the same period of time so that there can be this focus on moving to the West.”

To summarize, the article–and apparently, the book’s authors–want us to believe that the suspension took place after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in a time of upheaval when a lot of the church’s activities, including missionary work, were temporarily suspended. Unfortunately, this is not what actually happened. The crucial fact that is omitted is that it wasn’t Brigham Young who suspended the Relief Society. As the article notes, Emma was vehemently opposed to the practice of plural marriage, and she began to use the Relief Society organization to publicly denounce the practice.

At the risk of making this post way too long, I’ll just repost here what I wrote before:

In early 1844, a few months before the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Relief Society, organized two years earlier and headed by the prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, suspended its operations. The society would not meet again for more than twenty years.

In the weeks before the suspension, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick had circulated rumors about Hyrum Smith’s practice of polygamy. At Joseph Smith’s instruction. W. W. Phelps wrote a refutation of the rumors entitled “A Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” which Emma presented to the Relief Society on March 9, 1844.

She explained that the women had met to lend their collective voice to a proclamation that countered Orsimus Bostwick’s slander of Hyrum Smith. Emma read the “Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” aloud to the group. … Emma received a unanimous positive vote from the women, who were willing to “receive the principles of Virtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prest. in putting down iniquity.” With a remark that may have seemed pointed toward Elizabeth Whitney and Vilate Kimball, whose young daughters had married Joseph, Emma told the women, “It is high time for Mothers to watch over their daughters and exhort them to keep the path of virtue” (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p 173).

She then read the First Presidency’s original letter to the Relief Society on its founding in 1842:

We therefore warn you, and forwarn you … we do not want anyone to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals & virtues, & scriptural laws. … All persons pretending to be authorized by us … are and will be liars and base imposters & you are authorized … to denounce them as such … whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators, patriarchs, twelve apostles … you are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices” (Ibid., 173-174).

In a later session that afternoon, Emma emphasized that the church had publicly declared itself opposed to plural marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants and reiterated that the Relief Society’s original charge was to root out iniquity.

[Emma] then presented both the “Voice of Innocence” and the presidency’s letter, stating that the two documents contained the principles the society had started upon, but she “was sorry to have to say that all had not adhere’d to them.” Referring to Joseph’s original charge to search out iniquity, Emma reminded the women that she was the president of the society by the authority of Joseph. The minutes record, “If there ever was any Authority on earth [to search out iniquity] she had it–and had [it] yet.” Emma urged the women to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith as he taught them “from the stand,” implying that his private teachings should be disregarded. Reminding them that “there could not be stronger language than that just read,” she emphasized that those were Joseph’s words” (Ibid., 174).

The Relief Society would not meet again. “When Emma had the women take a public oath with their hands raised in support of virtue, she caused enough consternation in the men’s councils to stop the Relief Society meetings” (Ibid., 174). Church president John Taylor explained that the “reason why the Relief Society did not continue from the first organization was that Emma Smith the Pres. taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was not of God” (174).

Yet the official history of the Relief Society states that the Relief Society’s meetings “were suspended in 1844 due to the various calamities which befell the saints” (174). At the Relief Society’s sesquicentennial. Sheri Dew wrote that “by 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

Here’s how the CES Manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” describes it:

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Some apologists constantly ridicule critics and former members for stating that the church “covers up” embarrassing history. But this kind of rewriting of history is exactly that. The truth is uncomfortable, so it is swept under the rug, and church members are left to choose to believe Sheri Dew over John Taylor.

I wrote that post almost 7 years ago. To recap, the Relief Society was suspended in March 1844, 3 months before Joseph Smith’s death. At that point, there was no discussion of moving west and no obvious schism between Emma Smith and Brigham Young. The Relief Society was suspended because Joseph Smith was unhappy that Emma was using the meetings to “thwart the practice of plural marriage.” My guess is that Joseph understood that too much investigation would reveal the extent of his practice of polygamy, including the awkward fact that both of Emma’s counselors in the Relief Society presidency were intimately involved in polygamy, with Sarah Cleveland having married Joseph Smith and Elizabeth Whitney having given her daughter Sarah to Joseph as a wife.

Yet here it is 2016, and the church is still insisting that the suspension was Brigham Young’s doing and was a by-product of the move to the West.

So much for “remarkable transparency.”

Correction: The original version of this post listed Elizabeth Whitney as one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives, which is incorrect.

Who Is Captain Moroni?

January 4, 2016

Two days ago, on January 2, a group of well-armed, self-described “patriots” broke into the headquarters/visitors center of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, saying they will not move until their nebulous and unspecified demands are met. I wasn’t surprised that, among the leaders of the takeover, was Ammon Bundy, son of Cliven Bundy, whose refusal to pay federal grazing fees led to an armed confrontation in Nevada in April 2015. The elder Bundy had cited his Mormon beliefs in support of his defiance of federal law. Fortunately, the month-long standoff did not result in bloodshed, but it certainly looked as if it might.

In an article for Oregon Public Broadcasting, John Sepulvado tries to explain the Mormon connection to the current standoff. I think he did a fair job of it, but I wanted to explore a little bit more of what is behind the peculiar mix of right-wing insurrection and Mormon theology.

As Mr. Sepulvado correctly explains, these armed groups take their cues from Mormon symbolism, particularly the episode in the Book of Mormon involving a man called Captain Moroni gathering the free and righteous under the “Title of Liberty.” This explains why one armed man at the Malheur refuge identified himself as “Captain Moroni, from Utah.”


As Mr. Sepulvado explains, the story is basically that, at a time when the free government of the Nephites (the protagonists of the Book of Mormon) is under attack by evil dissenters (known as “king-men”), the righteous warrior, Captain Moroni, is outraged at the government’s refusal to come to his aid and therefore threatens to take up arms against the government–ironically to preserve the government. Here’s Sepulvado’s summary:

According to LDS scripture, Captain Moroni took command of the Nephites when he turned 25. Moroni innovated weaponry, strategy and tactics to help secure the safety of the Nephites, and allow them to worship and govern as they saw fit.

In LDS texts, Moroni prepares to confront a corrupt king by tearing off part of his coat and turning it into a flag, hoisting it as a “title of liberty.” This simple call to arms inspired a great patriotism in the Nephites, helping to raise a formidable army. Vastly outnumbered, the corrupt king fled. According to the Book of Mormon, Captain Moroni continued to push for liberty among his people.

“And it came to pass that Moroni was angry with the government, because of their indifference concerning the freedom of their country.”

This is only partially correct. There was no king at the time described, but a “chief governor,” elected more or less by the voice of the people. The chief governor was a man named Pahoran, who, according to the Book of Mormon, was not corrupt and did not flee. Rather, Pahoran supported Captain Moroni but explained that he had been driven out of his capital by the king-men:

I, Pahoran, who am the chief governor of this land, do send these words unto Moroni, the chief captain over the army. Behold, I say unto you, Moroni, that I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul.

But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions, yea, insomuch that they have risen up inrebellion against me, and also those of my people who are freemen, yea, and those who have risen up are exceedingly numerous.

And it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me that have been the cause of this great iniquity; for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people, which will be the cause of sore affliction among us; they have withheld our provisions, and have daunted our freemen that they have not come unto you.

And behold, they have driven me out before them, and I have fled to the land of Gideon, with as many men as it were possible that I could get.

And behold, I have sent a proclamation throughout this part of the land; and behold, they are flocking to us daily, to their arms, in the defence of their country and their freedom, and to avenge our wrongs. (Alma 61:2-6)

Subsequent chapters in the Book of Mormon describe how Captain Moroni and Pahoran work together to drive out the king-men and reestablish government control over the land. It’s a bit strange that Bundy and his friends see themselves as latter-day Captain Moronis, given that they clearly oppose the elected government of the people. If anything, the actions of Bundy and his friends more closely resemble the actions of the king-men described in the Book of Mormon. Unlike Pahoran and Captain Moroni, they have no legitimate claim to represent the government or the people. They are, in fact, guilty of sedition at best, treason at worst.

So, how did the symbolism of Mormonism become so tightly entwined with right-wing, anti-government ideology?

First, as most Americans understand, early Mormons experienced violent opposition from their non-Mormon neighbors in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois in the 19th century. Their attempts at redress from the federal government fell on deaf ears. Finally, after a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith and his brother, the Latter-day Saints were compelled to flee the United States and establish an isolated homeland in what was then part of Mexico. Within a couple of years of their settling Utah, the Mexican-American War resulted in Utah Territory coming under United States jurisdiction. The Mormons in Utah resented being governed by Washington, and they more or less used church ecclesiastical structure for day-to-day business and law. By 1857, federal appointees in Utah, tired of having their powers “usurped” or ignored by the Mormons, asked Present James Buchanan for help in putting down a “rebellion” in Utah. Buchanan sent 2,500 armed soldiers to install a new federally appointed governor and enforce federal law. The resulting Utah War ended with few casualties but a healthy suspicion of the federal government among Mormons. Anti-polygamy laws that disenfranchised Mormons, criminalized their religious practices, and seized church assets further ingrained a culture of suspicion toward the government.

But that’s only half the story. By the time of the Great Depression, Utah would follow most of the country in supporting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which rested on strong federal government action to lift the country out of economic catastrophe. Indeed, more than 60% of Utah voters supported Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, with support at 70% in 1936. It seemed that Mormons had made their peace with strong central government.

Then the Cold War came.

After World War II, America became gripped by a fear of Communist takeover. Most of us are familiar with the House Un-American Activities Committee, blacklists, and Joseph McCarthy. Out of the “Red Scare” came an extreme right-wing ideology that saw a Communist conspiracy in most efforts at international cooperation (such as the United Nations) and “big government” policies. Most prominent among proponents of this ideology was the John Birch Society, founded in 1958 by Robert Welch. He stated, “Both the U.S. and Soviet governments are controlled by the same furtive conspiratorial cabal of internationalists, greedy bankers, and corrupt politicians. If left unexposed, the traitors inside the U.S. government would betray the country’s sovereignty to the United Nations for a collectivist New World Order, managed by a ‘one-world socialist government'” (The Blue Book of the John Birch Society).

As we’ve seen with the Bundy folks, the idea that there are secret, treasonous forces at work within the government resonates with Mormon beliefs. Throughout the Book of Mormon are warnings against “secret combinations,” or secret organizations dedicated to the destruction of freedom and righteousness.

And there are also secret combinations, even as in times of old, according to the combinations of the devil, for he is the founder of all these things; yea, the founder of murder, and works of darkness; yea, and he leadeth them by the neck with a flaxen cord, until he bindeth them with his strong cords forever. (2 Nephi 26:22).

One prominent adherent of the Birch Society was well-known Mormon W. Cleon Skousen. His book, The Naked Communist, became an important part of the Birch Society canon, and was followed by The Naked Capitalist. The latter book draws mainly on Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (a history of modern European imperialism and multinational organizations) to suggest that, behind the lofty rhetoric of these international bodies lies an insidious effort to control the world through a single socialist government. Most serious students of history rightly dismiss Skousen’s theories, though such luminaries as Glenn Beck wholeheartedly endorse them.

But the link to Mormonism wasn’t cemented until apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave outspoken support to Skousen’s ideas and the Birch Society. Benson grounded his attacks on the United Nation, the Civil Rights movement, and other alleged instruments of Communism in his defense of the U.S. Constitution, which he referred to as “miraculous,” “a heavenly banner,” and “divinely inspired.” Indeed, LDS scripture has God saying, “I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).

In this way, Benson not only linked the principles of republican democracy and freedom to belief in God, but he specifically called out anything beyond a strict-constructionist reading of the Constitution as being inspired of the devil. Seen in this light, the following statements from a Bundy rally in Utah are completely understandable:

“If our (U.S.) Constitution is an inspired document by our Lord Jesus Christ, then isn’t it scripture?” Bundy asked.

“Yes,” a chorus of voices replied.

“Isn’t it the same as the Book of Mormon and the Bible?” Bundy asked.

“Absolutely,” the audience answered.

In my experience, the folks who most loudly proclaim their love for the Constitution know the least about it, its history, and its development. A few years ago, I heard from a longtime friend who had somehow immersed himself in this right-wing ideology. After a few minutes talking with him, I realized he had only a superficial understanding of the Constitution and how it works. I asked him if he had ever read the Federalist Papers, a must for anyone wanting to understand the “heavenly banner.” I wasn’t surprised when he said he hadn’t. But, he said, “I understand Constitutional principles.”

In his response, my friend told me everything I need to know about these supposed freedom fighters: they have somehow mixed their political beliefs (and fears) with a particular reading of Mormon scripture. To them, it makes perfect sense that one would take up arms against the government in order to preserve our system of government. It seems to me that what they are really saying is that they refuse to be ruled by the voice of people who disagree with them.

I have just learned that the LDS church has issued a statement:

While the disagreement occurring in Oregon about the use of federal lands is not a Church matter, Church leaders strongly condemn the armed seizure of the facility and are deeply troubled by the reports that those who have seized the facility suggest that they are doing so based on scriptural principles. This armed occupation can in no way be justified on a scriptural basis. We are privileged to live in a nation where conflicts with government or private groups can — and should — be settled using peaceful means, according to the laws of the land.

Some might wonder if these armed men will listen to the church and reconsider their actions. If I were a betting man, I would say they will ignore the church’s clear condemnation, perhaps even believing that the church itself has been infiltrated by the enemies of God.

The Spectacles and the Stone

August 21, 2015

Great piece from my good friend Christopher Smith.

How the Book of Mormon Translation Story Changed over Time

Growing up in the LDS church, I was taught that Joseph Smith used the Urim and Thummim to translate the Book of Mormon, as described his 1838 history:

Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.

As Chris notes, however, the official illustrations of the translation process almost never showed Joseph using the Urim and Thummim. For example, this compilation shows the Urim and Thummim in only one of the illustrations, and it’s one I did not see until I was well into adulthood.

Now, before someone gets upset, I am not suggesting some nefarious attempt to cover up church history. This version of the translation process is just what I was presented with growing up.

As the church has recently acknowledged, the other instrument used to translate was a seer stone that Joseph Smith had borrowed from Willard Chase. I was completely unaware of the seer stone until my mission president mentioned it in a devotional meeting in our office.

As Chris says, the church’s increased openness in discussing the translation process is a very positive sign that the church has decided to “peel back many of the layers of historical revisionism that have accumulated around the translation process.”

Boyd K. Packer

July 6, 2015

As pretty much all of my Mormon and former-Mormon readers will know by now, Boyd Kenneth Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died on Friday, July 3, at the age of 90. I haven’t been surprised at all at the reactions from different camps. A great deal of vitriol has been heaped on his corpse in the last few days (my personal favorite: “Rot in hell, you bloated toad”), and, of course, the faithful mourn the passing of a great man who loved God and painted in his spare time (M. Russell Ballard said, “He was truly an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, he represented the Savior of the world”).

So, what was he: the Savior’s representative, or a vicious old toad? Quite clearly, how we see his life and legacy depends entirely on how we view the church he served for so long. Much has been said about Packer’s role in the September Six affair in 1993, his apparent preference for faith-promoting history over things “that are true [but] not very useful,” and his retrograde attitudes towards sexuality and, in particular, homosexuality. He clearly was a lightning rod who did not shy away from controversy. As Dallin Oaks said of him, “You can’t stage-manage a grizzly bear.”

I had only a few minor brushes with the man. Like all Mormon boys of my generation, I was well-acquainted with his talk, “To Young Men Only,” which, although it spawned countless jokes about “little factories,” made it clear to me that masturbation was a terrible evil, so I vowed to stop, and was quite successful (so much so that my urologist tells me that certain health issues I have had are a direct result of my not “stimulating my little factory”). I learned from Elder Packer that it wasn’t enough not to masturbate, but I was to control my thoughts with such vigilance that I would never allow my mind to wander to anything lustful. More than anything, this teaching is what filled my young mind with shame and guilt, which would remain for many years.

My first real-life brush with President Packer came in December 1983, a couple of weeks after I received my mission call. My birthday is in November, so I had agonized over whether I should squeeze in another semester of college before leaving or enter the MTC right when I turned 19. I finally decided to go back to school, which meant delaying my mission for a couple of months. When my roommate and I heard then-Elder Packer was coming to Provo to give a “missionary fireside,” we were excited, and we arrived early at the Provo Tabernacle to get good seats. Elder Packer spoke about how selfish it is to delay a mission for any reason, such as education or finances. I sat there, slowly shrinking in my seat, burning with shame for having acted so selfishly. Had I been more faithful, I thought, I would have been in the MTC at that very moment, instead of feeling all that guilt. After the meeting, my roommate insisted that we get in line to shake Elder Packer’s hand. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to look him in the eye, knowing I had shirked my duty and that he knew. As we got closer to him, the shame kept on building. Eventually, he put out his hand and shook mine. He looked me in the eye and asked, “Are you going to serve a mission, young man?” I told him I had already received my mission call and would be leaving for Bolivia in a few weeks. He patted my hand, smiled, and said, “Well, that’s just fine.” I was so relieved. Clearly, I had been forgiven, but I vowed I would never again put my own needs ahead of the Lord’s.

The next time I came across President Packer in person was in 1993, when I was working at the Church Office Building. Our editing staff had been invited to the All-Church Coordinating Council, which was a meeting of everyone in management in the building. We met in the auditorium, and we heard from M. Russell Ballard, President Packer, and finally, President Thomas Monson. I don’t remember Elder Ballard’s talk at all, but I do have a vivid memory of President Monson glaring at us over glasses he’d borrowed from Neal Maxwell, berating us for our poor efforts to spread the gospel message. But everyone else remembers President Packer’s talk, now (in)famous for his belief that the church faced three great dangers: “the gay-lesbian movement, the feminist movement (both of which are relatively new), and the ever-present challenge from the so-called scholars or intellectuals.” What struck me at the time was less his calling out of people who were “facing the wrong way,” but more that he read letters from members who were obviously distraught, yet his tone was disdainful and even mocking (the official transcript does not include the laughter he elicited at the letter-writers’ expense). I found the whole thing deeply troubling, and I remember thinking, as the auditorium rang with raucous laughter, “This is not a man of God.” I felt terribly guilty for thinking that, but I couldn’t shake it.

The last encounter I had with him was in 1996, when I attended the dedication of the Mt. Timpanogos Temple in American Fork, Utah. Our bishopric had received tickets to the celestial room, meaning that we would be in the same room as the prophet (Gordon B. Hinckley) when he spoke and offered the dedicatory prayer. At the time, we had 5 small children, and although we had tried to get out of the house early, we didn’t arrive until about 15 minutes before the meeting would begin. To our surprise, the room had been filled from the back, going forward, meaning that our bishop, who had arrived 4 hours early, was seated in the very back row. My wife and I, on the other hand, were in the second row, with only the secretary to the Quorum of Seventy and his wife sitting in the row ahead of us (I knew him from my days at the Church Office Building). Only a couple of things stand out to me: first was President Hinckley saying, as near as I can remember it, “That you are here means that you are the best people in the world, that is, if you were honest in your worthiness interviews.” I remember digging through my brain, trying to find some failing I’d missed, but I ended up feeling pretty good about myself. President Packer was to lead the “Hosanna Shout,” which is the point during the dedication when everyone stands, waves a white handkerchief in the air, and shouts, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!” three times, followed by, “Amen, Amen, and Amen!” He gave us some background history, and then led the shout. I thought he seemed bored in his matter-of-fact recitation of the “shout,” which was more of a low-key chant than anything. I’m guessing he was aiming at solemn dignity, but it sounded mechanical and uninspiring to me. I thought maybe I just wasn’t in tune with the Spirit.

And that’s pretty much it. I didn’t know the man and certainly didn’t know his heart. Part of me admires his dedication to the LDS church. His entire adult life was spent serving the church in one way or another. After a career in the Church Education System (mostly as an administrator), he was called into full-time church service as an Assistant to the Twelve when he was only 37 years old. Eight years later he was called as an apostle, so more than half his life was spent as a full-time church leader, with almost exactly half his life as an apostle. Anyone who saw him the last few years knows he was in very poor health, and yet he still served his church to the best of his ability. He was, by all accounts, a dedicated and loving husband and father to 10 children, and despite what some have said, it seems to me that he lived a fairly modest lifestyle.

At the same time, I completely understand why so many people disliked the man, maybe even hated him (for the record, I have trouble mustering hatred for anyone, so I don’t). His teachings, regardless of their intention, put me and many others through a great deal of unnecessary guilt and shame. A friend tells me that Packer’s teachings about masturbation drove him to attempt suicide at age 45. I know a lot of gay and bisexual members (and their spouses) who have suffered so much because of his condemnation of them. Am I angry? Do I blame him for putting people through all that? It would be easy to do so, but I don’t blame him, at least not entirely and not specifically him.. He was simply expressing what everyone in LDS culture knew about sexuality: outside of marriage, it was not to be expressed or even thought of. I’m sure he believed that as fervently as I did, so I can’t blame him for saying what I probably would have said had I been in his position. Did those teachings mess me up? Undoubtedly, but, whatever I experienced, those teachings didn’t originate with him, and they were expressed just as forcefully by others, such as Spencer W. Kimball.

It’s also easy to single him out for his role in quieting dissent and keeping a lid on those aspects of church history that are “not uplifting.” But again, he was merely giving voice to certain strains within the church as an institution. Alone, he could not possibly have orchestrated the excommunication of six very different personalities; the September Six happened because that’s where the church was in 1993. That the institution’s goals coincided with his beliefs is more a problem with the institution. Packer made an easy target, perhaps because people wanted to see him as an aberration, an outlier, so they could distance the church from its actions.

I suspect he recognized his role as lightning rod. He took it upon himself to attract the attention and vitriol of those who would otherwise understand that his “controversial” statements were simply restatements of what the church was already doing. Some might call that courageous, but I think he probably enjoyed it.

In the end, Boyd Kenneth Packer was just like the rest of us: complex, a mass of contradictions, and utterly human. May he rest in peace. And may all those who suffered shame and guilt because of his words find forgiveness–both for themselves, and for him.

Truth and the Book of Mormon

May 19, 2015

I stumbled across a series of articles about “fringe” historical and religious beliefs by Philip Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University, over on Patheos. Basically, he discusses the tendency of iconoclasts to portray the academic community as totally resistant to change because of their heavy investment in the prevailing paradigm. Naturally, then, those who reject the scholarly consensus often see themselves as courageous champions of truth who will eventually be vindicated. Mind you, this phenomenon isn’t unique to anti-academic outsiders, but is pretty common among those who fight against what they see as powerful consensus. Heck, a lot of Mormon critics I know see themselves as bravely shining the light of truth on entrenched Mormon beliefs. Recently, someone accused me of hubris, complaining that I think I “get it” and no one else does, so perhaps I am not immune to this.

Anyway, in his first piece, “I Want to Believe,” Jenkins begins by discussing a common claim by people advocating fringe theories: the powers that be are suppressing or ignoring vital evidence that challenges the current consensus. As he says, though, there are good reasons for the consensus. Writing about a book that posits a married Jesus, Jenkins writes:

For a scholar approaching any thing like Lost Gospel, the primary questions concern sources. Is the source credible, and does it have any chance of presenting information that can plausibly be linked to the period in question? That does not necessarily mean that a source about Jesus must have been written in the first century, but can we see any suggestion it preserves older material, so that we can establish a credible chain? In other words, a hypothetical thirteenth century document might contain a fifth century text, which preserved the words of some very early historian writing not long after Jesus’s time. Such a find would be wonderful, and might even revolutionize scholarship. Nothing like that appears in Lost Gospel. If there were the vaguest trace of a smidgeon of a hint of a suspicion that Joseph and Aseneth might have anything like the importance that Lost Gospel claims, someone would have suggested it long ago.

In short, the consensus is based on the accumulation of credible sources, not on the suppression of data. In his next article, “Outliers and Iconoclasts,” he introduces a legal standard for establishing the credibility of a source:

Federal courts have also wrestled for years to decide what does or does not constitute legitimate scientific evidence. The current measure is the so-called Daubert Standard, which includes these criteria:

1.Empirical testing: whether the theory or technique is falsifiable, refutable, and/or testable

2.Whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication.

3.The known or potential error rate.

4.The existence and maintenance of standards and controls concerning its operation.

5.The degree to which the theory and technique is generally accepted by a relevant scientific community.

Some of those items apply more than others to the topics I am discussing, but here again we see the stress on scholarly consensus and general acceptance. The “mainstream” matters!

He notes that none of this involves appeal to authority. Scholars can and are mistaken, but, as he shows, in “The Monte Verde Principle,” the consensus changes when the evidence compels it to change. He notes that the discovery of the Monte Verde archaeological site challenged the prevailing paradigm and eventually overthrew it in what Thomas Kuhn would call a scientific revolution.

Put another way, scientists certainly did accept a paradigm, but when competing evidence arose, it was tested and verified, and the old model was effectively falsified. Such a change happens by focusing intensely on one clear exception to the rule, and then expanding to other contentious areas. And as everyone agrees, any such alleged exception has to be treated with the most rigorous and hyper-critical care.

That is what separates real science and archaeology from pseudo-science and pseudo-archaeology. Challenging consensus wisdom is done by recognized scientific methods, and not by producing an endless swarm of obviously spurious junk examples.

You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.

To my surprise, in “Mormons and New World History” and “Wandering over the Plains of the Nephites,” Jenkins goes on to use Book of Mormon apologetics as an example of fringe pseudoscience employed to bolster claims that are “simply not factually correct in any particular.” Some of my readers might expect me to pile on in scorning Mormon apologetics, but that’s not what I found interesting about Jenkins’s article. Yes, he correctly explains that an extraordinary theory must have its “Monte Verde,” or some clear evidence supporting it before it can be accepted. In his view and that of most scholars, the Book of Mormon has none. That said, however, he doesn’t dismiss Mormons as simple-minded rubes with misguided faith. In fact, he expresses no opinion about the spiritual truth of Mormonism:

I have a lot of sympathy for Mormonism and the LDS tradition, for multiple reasons. So many of their ideas and principles appeal to me, and my personal dealings with Mormons have been overwhelmingly positive. The church’s phenomenal social ministries fill me with awe. As to whether the church was founded by an authentic prophet: with all humility, I say, God knows. On the academic side of things, if you don’t know Mormon history, you are missing a huge amount of American religious history. If a member of my family announced an intention to join the LDS church, I would disagree with their decision, but I would wish them all success.

This is pretty much my view. I don’t see any evidence that supports an ancient origin for the Book of Mormon, but I cannot make any categorical statements about someone else’s faith being “true” or “false.” Obviously, I agree with the scholarly consensus about Book of Mormon claims, but I know and respect a lot of people who believe wholeheartedly in Mormonism, regardless of credible evidence or lack thereof. They feel their beliefs are based on solid grounds, both “scientific” and spiritual, as I feel mine are. That we disagree on the credibility and importance of different kinds of evidence does not mean either side is necessarily arrogant in believing we are right. That’s just human nature.

It will be interesting to see where Mormon apologetics goes from here. From what I can see, the arguments are all about possible and plausible scenarios, not about solid evidence–a Monte Verde–in favor of the Book of Mormon. I don’t expect such evidence will be forthcoming, but you never know.

The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?